Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Institutional Change and the Reconstruction

I have been reading A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner, and have posted this and this as I read.

The Civil War was very destructive, especially to the southern United States. The war decided that the United States was one nation -- indivisible. It resulted in abolition of slavery in the states in revolt during the war, and abolition of slavery for the entire nation through the 13th amendment to the Constitution immediately after the war. Thus a major focus of the Reconstruction was the reconstruction of political institutions after the war, reconstruction of economic institutions, especially those disrupted by the abolition of slavery, and reconstruction of the institutions of citizenship for to deal with the large number of former slaves who had been freed.
  • Political Institutions: the discussion focuses on who should vote. Should former slaves have the vote? How about Rebel leaders? When should voting rights be restored to the former Confederate states? How would it be decided if the voting had been fair and whether to seat those elected/
  • Economic Institutions: The key issue was how to institutionalize the work of the former slaves. If plantation agriculture was to continue, how would one institutionalize the interface that connected labor to the plantations? How many small farms for black families would be established and how would the relevant economic institutions be organized.
  • Citizenship Institutions: How would citizenship related institutions be restructured to allow former slaves to have citizenship rights and responsibilities? 
The choice of political institutions was influenced of course by the racism common in the southern and northern states. but also be the desire of the Republicans dominating the federal government to institutionalize a system that would keep their party in power.

The freed slaves seemed to have wanted their own small farms that would have focused on subsistence production for the family plus some product for the market; this of course was a radical change from the plantation system of the deep south, a change that the blacks and their allies turned out not to have the power to obtain. Still it was a model that had been used by Sherman during the war (40 acres and a mule) and was a model used in the Homestead Act for the settlement of lands newly taken by the USA.

Since the plantation system survived, how would plantations recruit labor? Various options were tried. The principle one used for many years turned out to be sharecropping. Tenant farming (by black families of land owned by whites also emerged in the post-war south. However, there was also a mechanism used in which blacks were convicted of minor crimes, and then their labor sold to plantations in "work gangs" by officials of the government. The normal hiring institutions that had been assumed to be the outcome by northerners seem to have been little used.

Blacks were given citizenship as a birthright, and had rights to freedom, marriage, to testify in courts, to make contracts, and to own property, etc. It turned out that eventually the right to vote by blacks and to hold political office were initally denied in the south (and sometimes in the north), and were among the most controversial issues of the post-war period.

Beyond the Institutions Described Above

Today we understand that a culture includes many institutions, that the institutions influence one another, and some of the institutions that are less discussed in the book may have been quite important in the Reconstruction period.

Southern Black Culture

Blacks, whose marriages had not been respected in slavery, were very concerned with marriage institutions; as they had often been torn away from children in slavery, in freedom that wanted to institutionalize their rights to bring up their children. 

Former slaves quickly institutionalized their own churches and their own religious institutions, albeit ones that seem to us now to have been modeled after white churches and institutions with which they had been familiar.

Blacks had learned the value of education, and wanted schools. Barred from integrated schools, they quickly created black educational institutions. I assume that the first historically black colleges and universities came to be in this period, as well as adult literacy classes and schools for black children.

So too, blacks quickly developed communal organizations such as clubs, civic action groups, etc.. Recalling that Alexis De Tocqueville was struck by the number and importance of communal organizations in America, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the black institutions seem to have been strongly influenced in form and function by those in white communities.

White Southern Culture

I am no expert, but white southerners seemed more likely (than were blacks) to keep somewhat modified institutions that already existed, perhaps because they had more political and economic power with which to defend those institutions. One obvious exception is the KKK, which was developed to use force to reject black demands for improved status. As stated above, white plantation owners and managers ultimately substituted sharecropping, tenant farming, and use of prisoners for slave labor. thereby achieving high levels of production and export. (Eventually, mechanization would reduce labor needs for cotton farming and other forms of extensive agriculture.)

Northern Institutions

I recall that new institutions were being created in the north as well in the post war period. The transcontinental railroad and telegraph, supported in part by the national government through land grants are an obvious example. In education, the federal government again used land grants to establish a national system of land grant colleges. In the area of science and technology, a national system of agricultural field stations was created, linked to the land grant colleges and universities; the National Academy of Sciences was created.

Of course, the federal government innovated greatly during the Civil War. The military size was increased hugely. Institutions were created to support the soldiers, and in the aftermath of the war a system of National cemeteries was created.

A national currency replaced the many bank issued currencies, and a system of national banks was created. Federal bonds were issued to obtain money, and for the first time some were issued in small denominations for less than wealthy buyers. Wikipedia states:
Republicans enacted their legislation. At the same time they passed new taxes to pay for part of the war, and issued large amounts of bonds to pay for the most of the rest. (The remainder can be charged to inflation.) They wrote an elaborate program of economic modernization that had the dual purpose of winning the war and permanently transforming the economy. The key policy-maker in Congress was Thaddeus Stevens, as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He took charge of major legislation that funded the war effort and revolutionized the nation's economic policies regarding tariffs, bonds, income and excise taxes, national banks, suppression of money issued by state banks, greenback currency, and western railroad land grants.
The industrial advantages of the North over the South helped secure a Northern victory in the American Civil War (1861–1865). The Northern victory sealed the destiny of the nation and its economic system. The slave-labor system was abolished; the world price of cotton plunged, making the large southern cotton plantations much less profitable. Northern industry, which had expanded rapidly before and during the war, surged ahead. Industrialists came to dominate many aspects of the nation's life, including social and political affairs.
Temporary measures of the federal government suggested that it might be able to more fully impose federal rules on states in the future. These included the Freedmens Bureau, and the creation of 5 military districts covering most of the Confederate states and installing governors of these districts appointed by the federal government.

This is only a partial listing of institutional changes that might be considered part of the post Civil War Reconstruction.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

The election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1786, a disgraceful episode in U.S. political history, resulted in the end of many of the Reconstruction programs and his assumption of office is the cut off of Foner's book's dating of the Reconstruction.